Essays: Alpine idiocies |
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Alpine idiocies

DEMIS ROUSSOS was hauled 4,000 feet up a snow-covered Alp to host Christmas Showtime Special (BBC1). Clad in a fur-trimmed black kaftan, Demis resembled a sack of rubbish being attacked by rats. ‘Chrai-eest the SAY-viour is born,’ he trilled.

The effort of winching Demis into position must have been the last straw for the Beeb’s technicians. Not long afterwards they pulled their plugs. There was a lot of talk about the 5 per cent pay limit, but my own investigations reveal that the true reason why both the BBC channels went dark was a last-minute break-down in negotiations about danger money for lifting shaggy fat Greek pop stars up mountains and then having to listen to them.

Charles Aznavour was among Demis’s guests. ‘We’ll take a boat where we can wartch the reever rarn,’ droned Charles. Snow lay all about. It also lay all about David Vine, amiable host of Ski Sunday (BBC2), which featured two World Cup downhill events. The prospect of losing the Beeb’s line-up of Christmas entertainment was not quite so daunting as the unions supposed, but the thought of losing David was too much to be borne. This season he has kitted himself out with a whole new range of euphemisms for British skiers doing badly. ‘A good time on his ratings’ means a bad time on Austrian, Norwegian, French, Italian or indeed Jamaican ratings. ‘He’s five or six seconds in touch with the leaders’ means that he is hopelessly out of the running.

On the night the BBC went off the air, the opposition fielded A Few of Our Favourite Things (Thames), starring Eric Sykes. Written entirely by Sykes himself, it was a very funny show. One sketch grew out of another. It was the Python no-punchline principle, but Sykes has incorporated it into his writing without easing up on his sense of discipline. The result is a sort of coherent Milliganese, with overtones of Tommy Coo ... but this is to sound academic.

Really Sykes is just himself, the most economical of our screen comedians. His parodies last a few seconds each. In this latest of his spectaculars, even his guests caught the habit of brevity. Peter Cook concentrated for once. Jimmy Edwards and Irene Handl had just the right amount to do. Aided by the ever-attentive Hattie, Sykes took care of the virtuosity. For a British comic he is blessedly wary about jumping into drag, but he still manages to appear as a satisfactory variety of different characters, the most diverting of which, this time, was a terrible stage doorman called Jack.

Lillie (LWT) cashed in her chips. To represent the grand horizontal in her declining years, Fabulous Frankie Annis had been equipped with an extra chin. Apparently composed of durable plastic, it was cemented into position immediately abaft of the one she already had. Until almost the end Lillie went on falling into bed with any eligible gentleman she had not fallen into bed with previously. Her supplementary chin merely obliged her to fall more awkwardly.

If the script had ever stopped to think, it would have realised that its heroine was a bit of a scrubber, but there was no time for ratiocination. Exposition had top priority, even at the eleventh hour. The First World War was evoked by such locutions as ‘all this talk of war,’ ‘these terrible Zeppelins,’ and ‘these dreadful U-boats.’ That having been got out of the road, Lillie was left alone with her thoughts. She soon ran out of those.

Written by Jim Hawkins and directed by the astonishing Jack Gold, Thank You, Comrade** (BBC1) was just about the most accomplished thing I have seen on television since ‘The Naked Civil Servant,’ which was also directed by Jack Gold. It will be remembered that some BBC executive covered himself with obloquy, and gave ITV the biggest present of its life, by turning ‘The Naked Civil Servant,’ down. This time nobody was allowed to make the same mistake.

The time is 1918, the scene Russia. The Bolsheviks, keen to start their own film industry but starved of equipment, send a buyer to America. He is an Italian con-man called Cibrario, played with well-oiled shiftiness by Ben Kingsley. Inspired by his beddable American girl assistant (Connie Booth), Cibrario works a swindle which diverts a million dollars of Soviet funds into his own pocket. Meanwhile, back in the USSR, the idealistic young Soviet film-makers are eating potatoes and concocting masterpieces out of loose ends.

So much for the plot. The execution of it was dazzling. Gold is the complete master of pastiche. For ‘Arturo Ui’ he invented a dreamsville Chicago that looked and sounded as American as ‘Scarface,’ despite the fact that half the actors were British. This time he gave us a synthesis of all the ways in which the early Soviet Union liked to see itself. The visual style was soaked in Eisenstein, Pudovkin and Dovzhenko. The dialogue was thick with the exclamation marks which in Soviet official writings are meant to evoke the sense of history.

‘On to the theatre committee!’ cried the young artists as they ran upstairs and along corridors. Agitprop trains steamed heroically to the cultural front, screening films of the Red Army’s victories to the awed peasants. Gold gave the naïve idealists their due — indeed more than their due, when you consider what an hysterical poseur Mayakovsky was in reality. But the man who mattered, and who was seen to matter, was Stalin. As yet far from power, he sat in the background, hating the Charlie Chaplin films by which Lenin was so impressed.

‘Better clowns than that in Georgia,’ growled the man of steel. Eventually Stalin would go on to kill almost everyone else in the cast, but the time was not yet. This was the false dawn. We tend nowadays to overrate the achievements of that period of Soviet artistic history, but there is no denying that it was an exciting time. Even when Gumilev was murdered, there was still good reason for the artists to go on believing that they would have a say in shaping the future. Gold caught the spirit of that belief, so that you found yourself wishing Cibrario would fail. A truly brilliant programme.

‘You’re the King of England!’ piped Wallis Simpson, still not getting the point. But Edward knew he had no power to do anything except leave. So he left, and Edward and Mrs Simpson (Thames) came to the inevitable conclusion which its umpteen million viewers were all hoping would be postponed forever. Undoubtedly this superbly mounted series hit the nation where it lives — i.e., in its subconscious.

The only thing wrong at the end was the same thing that was wrong at the start. Edward Fox was simply too impressive to be credible. Edward was a weak king for all his qualities. George, his replacement, was a strong king for all his drawbacks. In suggesting the reverse, the script pushed the story of Edward and Mrs Simpson towards tragedy. There were only a few bars of frolicsome music at the end to hint at the protracted farce towards which the runaways were heading. Still, drama has its own priorities, and the story of a love-sick man giving up his occupation has always been a good one. Shakespeare’s version was called ‘Antony and Cleopatra.’

The Observer, 24th December 1978
[ ** Thank You, Comrades ]